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Do you remember when you first learned the words to the Lord’s Prayer? Was it in church, or Sunday School, or when you were preparing for your first communion? Or, if you are not from a Christian background, somehow through the osmosis of living in a Christian culture and going to enough funerals and weddings, kind of learn the words? I remember one Jewish friend who said she always thought it began, “Our Father, Who art in heaven, Harold be thine name.”
I didn’t officially memorize the Lord’s Prayer until I did my chaplaincy training at Norwalk Hospital, where it was suggested that it would be useful to know to pray with many of the patients. But, I did sort of know it: from when I entered the third grade midyear in Miss Bua’s homeroom. Students in her homeroom recited the Pledge of Allegiance and said the Lord’s Prayer every morning after the bell rang. I had never heard it before that and for several months mouthed the words, vaguely aware that it was a Christian prayer and my parents probably would not have been so happy about me saying it. What I remember more distinctly though was the day after the Supreme Court decided that prayer in school couldn’t be mandated. Miss Bua told the class, “They say we can’t require you to pray in school anymore. But they can’t tell me what to do in my classroom and we’re still going to say the Lord’s Prayer every day.” I stopped mouthing along after that, and it might just be the beginning of my being an advocate!
But I learned in my days working in the hospital that the Lord’s Prayer, based on the verses in the Sermon on the Mount, could be a very powerful opportunity for connection and solace to people. Patients would ask me to pray it with them, and the words became very real. “Give us this day our daily bread” means something profound when you are struggling with a disease where you can’t eat much anymore, where you are not allowed to drink water before an operation, or where you have a feeding tube. “Deliver us from evil” can strike the heart when one is fighting cancer, or AIDS, or debilitating disease.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” was particularly profound as patients at the end of their lives shared their regrets, their concerns about the afterlife, their desire to review and make sense of their lives. Some patients even asked me to hear their confessions, something I generally referred to the priests on duty.
As a child, I envied my Catholic friends the opportunity to go to confession. Tell your sins – I lied, I was mean to my sister, I cheated on a test – and be absolved to start anew. It seemed like the Jewish one day a year, Yom Kippur, didn’t offer nearly as much. Ralph and other formerly Catholic friends of mine have told me that as children they felt clean and even pure when they left the confessional and said the required prayers. (In my work in sexuality, I have often thought that the need to confess one’s sexual thoughts to a religious leader is an unforgivable intrusion into one’s personal sexuality. However, in my speeches on sexuality and religion, and some of you may have heard this, I like to quote a priest writing in the NY Times about confession several years ago. He wrote that when he was a child and the priest asked him if he had entertained impure thoughts, he was always tempted to say, “Why no father, they entertained me.”)
I’ve thought a lot about forgiveness in the past two years. Next week, is the second anniversary of the day that I found out that the head of the organization that was the Religious Institute’s fiscal agent had stolen all of our funds – nearly half a million dollars – and gone out of business. Many of you remember that I stood in this pulpit that weekend and shared the devastation that had happened. I vowed that I would not allow this to end my ministry on sexuality and religion, and you as a community responded so generously – with large and small donations, with volunteer time in our offices, with food for my staff, with notes and kindnesses and by officially becoming our fiscal agent for a few months before we obtained our own 501 3 c status.
And we quickly found out that the use of all of our funds, that surely would have been devastating enough, was only the beginning of the betrayal and the lies by someone I had trusted and indeed loved. And I told you more about that story in the summer of 2012, in my sermon, “This Too Shall Pass” and said that I wouldn’t bring this up again until I was ready to preach on forgiveness. Consider today the end of that trilogy.
You all know it is hard, really hard to forgive. You also all have been hurt by people – maybe by parents who didn’t love you unconditionally or well enough, maybe by life partners who violated their commitments to you, maybe by business partners or colleagues, or by friends who disappointed you – the list is long. You have your own stories. Everyone understands what it is to be hurt by another person’s words or actions or lack of action. As many as one in four of the women and one in six of the men here had the soul-scarring experience as children of being sexually abused. Many of our families carry the legacy of surviving the Holocaust, the slave trade, brutal violence, terrorism, and racist or homophobic hatred. Being hurt – and needing to forgive – are perhaps universal human experiences.
Forgiveness is a central theme in the world’s sacred texts. The word “forgive” appears hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Scriptures. In the book of Matthew, as sung earlier, Peter asks Jesus “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” In case you’re curious, that’s 490 times. In the book of Mark, Jesus counsels his followers similarly, “And when you stand in prayer, forgive whatever you have against anybody, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too.”
What Jesus seemed to understand is that forgiveness is an ongoing process, especially when the wound is deep enough, and that being able to forgive those who have hurt you benefits YOU more than it does the person you are forgiving. Writer and Presbyterian minister Fredrick Buechner, my all time favorite Christian theologian, wrote, “When you forgive someone who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and woundedness.” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. Mindful that hate is an evil and dangerous force, we too often think of what it does to the person hated.” But holding on to hate and resentment hurts us as well. We all know people who decades later are still angry at their parents or their ex-spouses, an anger that prevents them from being at peace or happy in their lives. A sign I’ve seen says, “Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves – to get well and move on.” According to the Mayo Clinic, people who forgive those who have hurt them experience less anxiety, less stress, less depression, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of substance abuse. Forgiveness it appears is good for your body, your mind, and your spirit.
There is a Buddhist sutra that you may have heard. Two monks are walking in the woods, and come upon a stream and a woman standing there who is unable to swim. One of the monks picks her up and carries her over, despite the religious teaching that he is not to touch a woman. The monks continue on, in silence, with the other monk fuming at what his brother has done. When they reach the monastery, he finally explodes, “How could you carry her when you know it was a sin?” His brother answers, “I put her down on the other side of the pond. You are the one who is still carrying her.” Forgiveness is learning to put things down and move on.
Over the past two years, I’ve looked for stories and writings of forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ve read about people who have worked to be in relationships with the murderers of their children. I’ve read about people of color who have been willing to be in relationship with white people whose families had been their family’s slave holders.
I had the wonderful opportunity to go on the UU Legacy Tour of Mississippi and Alabama this past summer. It was an amazing week, and I hope some of you will choose to go on this summer’s trip. We traveled to 10 sites in Mississippi and Alabama, and met with people who were the ministers, the organizers, the children of the freedom fighters of the 1960’s efforts for civil rights and an end to segregation. We met with two 85 year old White ministers who had been allies of the movement and both had had their homes bombed. We met with 85 year old song writer Hollis Watkins who had sat at a lunch counter in Mississippi and spent two months in solitary confinement as a result. We met with Angela Davis, the daughter of James Chaney, one of the three young murdered civil rights workers – Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. She was born a week after he was murdered, and it wasn’t until she was 13 that she learned who he was and had he had died. She told us “I don’t feel hate for the people involved in my father’s murder. Hate was behind what happened to my father, and to live with hate would be to carry on the very thing that took him out of the world.” We met with Evelyn Cole Calloway, who still goes to the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, who remembered her parents coming home beaten by the Klan as they left church that night. She said, “I can forgive but I will never forget” and shared that her pain was eased when one of the children of one of the Klan members responsible apologized to her many many years later.
The living embodiment of forgiveness permeated these meetings. One of the absolute highlights of the Legacy pilgrimage was visiting King’s parsonage and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, now called Dexter King Memorial Church. King’s autobiography talks about the night he sat in that kitchen and in despair asked God for guidance for his next steps after the parsonage was bombed. Rev. Barbara Fast and I were invited to sit in that chair and take some personal moments for prayer. It was a very powerful moment.
King gave a sermon called “Love Your Enemies” a year after the Birmingham buses were desegregated. King had served time in jail for civil disobedience during the boycott. His Christmas sermon was a call to the Black people of Birmingham to forgive their oppressors. Remember that the Black Community of Birmingham had just a year ago spent 381 days boycotting the city buses to end segregation on the buses – walking miles each way to and from work for over a year, often at great personal risk. Think about what it would be for you to walk to work for over a year. And here’s what King told them just one year later:
“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. …Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.”
After Nelson Mandela died in December, there were many articles that included photos from his life. The picture that haunted me was a picture from his inauguration as President of South Africa that identified that his jailors were seated in the front row. One article said that the only person he insisted on being invited to the state inaugural dinner was a man who had been one of his jailors on Robbin Island. Mandela as you know spent 27 years in prison in South Africa. John Dramani Mahama, now President of Ghana but first a student follower of Mandela wrote this in the New York Times about the days after Mandela was released from prison:
“The world was spellbound. We wondered what we would do if we were in his shoes. We all waited for an indescribable rage, a call for retribution that any reasonable mind would have understood. Twenty-seven years of his life, gone. Day after day of hard labor in a limestone quarry, chipping away at white rock under a bright and merciless sun — without benefit of protective eyewear — had virtually destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed Mandela even of his ability to cry.
Yet, the man insisted on forgiveness. “To go to prison because of your convictions,” Mandela said, “and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”
Mandela himself describing the need for him to forgive his captors said, in the words I shared at the top of the Order of Service: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” And indeed, it was Mandela’s insistence on forgiveness and reconciliation – his turning from what would have surely been understandable as a desire for revenge or retaliation – that led to the new democratic South Africa.
Yet, we know we are not King or Mandela – after all these people won the Noble Peace Prize. And we also know that there are people whose acts are so heinous, so soul scarring that it is almost impossible to think about how they can be forgiven. Can Jews forgive the Nazis? Native American’s those who stole their lands? Children their abusers? Women their rapists? Can I forgive the man who stole everything from the Religious Institute?
But neither is Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Dunn, whose murderer last night was not held accountable just last night. My heart goes out to the parents of Jordan Davis. Yet Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, didn’t express any anger when she addressed reporters Saturday night. Her family, she said, is “so very happy to have just a little bit of closure….It’s sad for Mr. Dunn that he will live the rest of his life in that sense of torment, and I will pray for him,” McBath said. “And I’ve asked my family to pray for him.”
For our own salvation and for our own peace of mind we must learn to forgive. Mother Theresa counseled, “If you really want to love, you must learn to forgive.” Surely that is true of our relationships with the imperfect people who raised us, our parents. One of the primary tasks of early adulthood is to understand that for most of us, our parents did the best they could and to forgive them. One of the lessons of being a parent is knowing that we too will make mistakes with our children and that we too will hope that they will forgive us when they have their own. I once was told that “parenting mistakes made in love rarely do lasting damage.” Surely those of us in committed partnerships know that forgiveness is also a key to a long lasting marriage. We need to learn to say “I’m sorry” frequently and sincerely and then to forgive our partners because they too aren’t perfect. In my love and intimacy workshops, I teach about what John Gottman calls “regrettable incidents”: those times when our partner hurts us so deeply, unintentionally or intentionally, that all we can do is forgive them in love and move on. Few marriages don’t have those moments – if they don’t involve physical abuse and if they happen only rarely, they can be survived – primarily because we recognize that we too aren’t perfect partners and that we generally play a role in them.
Perhaps there is a need to learn to forgive each other, right here in our church community. As we look with Rev. Roberta at our history as a community, there are surely those times when we did not behave as we had promised each other – to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Every church community has its controversies: all I need to do is say roof, or organ, or Frank’s leaving to bring those times where we were not always our best selves to each other. Perhaps one of the tasks of the next year is to forgive each other and ourselves for those times.
And I think that’s part of the wisdom of “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yes, we have to forgive others, but we also have to forgive OURSELVES. Implicit in the request for God to forgive us in the first part of that prayer is that we too need forgiveness. We are not perfect. We behave badly. We have disappointed others. We have let people down. Each and every one of us. And we need to understand that we can forgive ourselves for our frailties…and we can all learn to more easily say “I’m sorry.” “Forgive me.” “I was wrong.”
This summer I spent a week in silent retreat at the Mercy Center in Branford, CT. It was an opportunity in silence to, in the words of theologian Richard Rohr “take a long loving look at the real.” About midway through the week, I experienced almost a full day of deep pain thinking back over the events of the past 15 months. I realized for perhaps the first time that in addition to being exhausted, betrayed, financially and emotionally devastated, that I also now was deeply grieving the loss of a friendship, a relationship, and even his life. I spent much of the day weeping, in a very dark place. And because we were in silence, and I had committed myself to that, I had to get myself out of that dark place. I began in prayer, and then tried to look at what had been the gifts of having a fiscal agent for those first 11 years, and the personal that the good part of Steve had offered me, despite what ultimately happened. It’s an exercise that I knew people who were going through ugly divorces often benefit from: remembering the good parts in order to prepare to forgive. And I was able to come up with lists.
And then still sad, I went to the “creativity room” and began with colored markers to fill up index cards for all that had happened to bring me and the Religious Institute to new life. The hundreds of donations, many from people who had never given to us before. The support of this church community. I listed by name the major foundations that had come through for us, the people on my new Board of Directors, my closest friends, the places where I had gone to decompress, the team of health care professionals who had helped me regain my health, the therapist, acupuncturist, nutritionist…the volunteers who worked in our offices, handling phones, writing grants, soliciting donations…the notes, the food, the flowers…My family and my closest friends, especially Ralph’s constant support and belief in me that I could survive this. And then I filled up another card with words of all the things I was grateful for…and another with all the things that bring me joy. The naming brought me peace and gratitude for the love that had surrounded me during this time.
And as I calmed down, this question came to me, almost from a place outside of myself, “Can I tell the story of the past 18 months neither with me as a victim nor with me as a heroine but me as a servant of God?” It was a startling moment. I didn’t want to be a victim of this betrayal. I didn’t need to be heroic. It was time to let go. I was being called to new life, to new understanding, and to a new future for the Religious Institute. Love indeed saves.
I left the Mercy Center with much more peace than when I had arrived. My car had been parked in the lot all week. As I drove out the driveway, my GPS said, “The route guidance is now over. Your destination has been reached.”
If only. It’s still in process. This coming week, I’m actually for the first time talking with one of his best friends who had served on his board. It’s too long a story how that has come about finally, but I am hopeful that it will be a time for reconciliation and more letting go. I know that one day I will be able to look back at this – not forgetting but with true forgiveness. I’m not there yet. I’m far short of seventy times seventy. I’m guessing you may still have someone or some ones to forgive as well. Can we try together? As we will sing together, can we grow together, forgiven and forgiving?
May it be so.